Or­ange Mound’s sports le­gacy is tied to Lit­tle Leagues

The Commercial Appeal - - Front Page - Tonyaa Weathers­bee Mem­phis Com­mer­cial Ap­peal USA TO­DAY NET­WORK - TEN­NESSEE

When Ed­die Wil­liams used to vol­un­teer to coach Mel­rose High School’s foot­ball team, he could see the fu­ture on the other side of the field.

“Those lit­tle boys (Lit­tle League foot­ball play­ers) would be out there play­ing on one end of Mel­rose sta­dium, and the foot­ball play­ers would be on the other end,” said Wil­liams, who said that all of the lit­tle boys play­ing looked for­ward to one day play­ing for Mel­rose.

But for some of those youths, that fu­ture was vi­o­lently dis­rupted.

A bus car­ry­ing Or­ange Mound Youth As­so­ci­a­tion foot­ball play­ers from a cham­pi­onship game in Fort Worth, Texas, over­turned in Ben­ton, Ark., around 2:40 a.m. Mon­day. Forty-five adults and chil­dren were in­jured, and one child, 9year-old Kameron John­son, was killed.

That tragedy shook Wil­liams. It also shook An­to­nio Hunts­man, who op­er­ates the Or­ange Mound Raiders Youth Sports and Men­tor­ing Or­ga­ni­za­tion, a dif­fer­ent group from the youth as­so­ci­a­tion, and Claudette Boyd, who or­ga­nizes the an­nual South­ern Her­itage Clas­sic Pa­rade in Or­ange Mound.

The Lit­tle League play­ers from Or­ange Mound, as well as those who come from through­out the city, are key to the life and the sports le­gacy of that his­toric com­mu­nity, they said.

“(The bus crash) im­pacted me greatly,” said Hunts­man, who said that he was so up­set by it that it took him a day to talk about it. “I ac­tu­ally sent two of my kids (in his youth or­ga­ni­za­tion) to the tour­na­ment, but they rode with their par­ents. “

“Or­ange Mound still is a mecca for sports,” Boyd said. “Tim Thomp­son (for­mer Mel­rose foot­ball coach) had a feeder sys­tem where he started with the Lit­tle Leagues and taught them all the fun­da­men­tals of the game...

“That’s why in the 1990s, we had such a suc­cess­ful foot­ball pro­gram.”

‘They still come back to Or­ange Mound’

Yet one of the most re­mark­able as­pects about Or­ange Mound Lit­tle League foot­ball is that al­though many of the youths live in other parts of Mem­phis - a trend that re­flects pop­u­la­tion losses spurred by sub­ur­ban flight and the drug trade - they still come back to play on its sports teams. To them, it’s still home. “Most of those boys’ par­ents grew up in Or­ange Mound,” Wil­liams said. “Sure, some of them (par­ents) end up in Cordova, or Col­lierville, or wher­ever their money leads them, but they still come back to Or­ange Mound.”

That, in and of it­self, is a re­flec­tion of the con­nec­tion that Mel­rose and Or­ange Mound still has when it comes to sports, and the sports dreams that com­mu­nity con­tin­ues to nur­ture.

Such nur­tur­ing is es­pe­cially ap­par­ent when the South­ern Her­itage Clas­sic – the yearly foot­ball ri­valry be­tween Ten­nessee State and Jack­son State – comes to town, Boyd said.

“Dur­ing the Clas­sic, they’re out there, play­ing on the fields,” she said.

The de­tails of that tragedy that left Kameron dead and many of his friends in­jured are still emerg­ing.

But the sad irony here is that when th­ese youths boarded that bus to rep­re­sent Or­ange Mound in a cham­pi­onship tour­na­ment, they rep­re­sented part of the lifeblood of a com­mu­nity that sub­ur­ban flight al­most drained it of years ago.

Th­ese youths car­ried the le­gacy of Mel­rose High, and the dreams of a re­silient com­mu­nity that still holds them closely, and still frets about their lives and their fu­tures. Fu­tures that Wil­liams hopes to see. “When­ever I see those lit­tle kids out there, I ask my­self if I’m go­ing to live long enough to see th­ese kids play in col­lege,” said Wil­liams, who is 65.

“That way, I could say I watched them grow up.”

The bus that car­ried the foot­ball teams from Or­ange Mound that crashed out­side Ben­ton, Arkansas, is towed away from the scene of the ac­ci­dent on Mon­day af­ter­noon, Dec. 3. BRAD VEST/THE COM­MER­CIAL AP­PEAL

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